Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come, even though you have broken
your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
-Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi-
I’ve always wondered what these dervishes feel or experience when they perform sema — the whirling dance ritual initiated by the followers and students of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic who is worldwide popular for its poetries and teachings on the intoxicating love of the Almighty God. Witnessing these lovers (of God) spinning counterclockwise in circle, following beautiful melody and heavenly lyrics, a question after another keeps popping up in my head. Are they genuinely in trance? Or, is their seemingly subdued performance merely to put up a show that captivates audience?
Honestly, I have no right to pass any judgement. I’m sure beautiful ritual like this has its own proper procedure that has to be complied by its participants. However, noticing some random excitements of a number of friends, jumping into performing the supposedly sacred activity recklessly, without preliminary meditation or prior conditioning of the heart, I doubt some performers do it genuinely. The ceremony of sema has become a cultural attraction worldwide that my skepticism grows to support a hopefully unlikely idea — that is some sema organisers, teams, and performers do it for the material gain of wealth and recognition.
On a more positive light though, global commercialization of the ceremony does help eradicating the negativity towards the Muslims. Performance of sema in front of international audience has only shared the core teaching of universal peace and love in Islam, harmony of living in the world of creations regardless of shape, species, gender, race and religion. I remember I went for a sema show in a huge theatre in Marina Bay, Singapore. The performing group was from Konya, Turkey, where the tradition originates from. It was a 1.5 to 2 hours show, yet audience was almost completely silent, absorbed in the entire procession. The only claps we did was when the first time the performers appeared on stage and at the very end, when they were actually leaving the stage.
Throughout the whole show, audience — mostly expatriates — were generally quiet. Those who could appreciate the artistry and the beauty of the occasion enjoyed attentively, breath-taken by each single component of the performance. The heavenly, repeating movement of the dervishes, the action of the shaykh (leader), the fine composition of the instruments’ melody, the rhythm and rhymes of the poetries and songs, all contributed to promote subtle, still and soothing atmosphere among the audience.
Frankly, despite the breathtaking view, I sometimes wondered if others didn’t get bored watching it. Seeing the same spinning movement performed by the same group of people over and over again throughout a long stretch of continuous melody did tend to occasionally distract me. My attention span wasn’t that long, especially for something as monotonous. The change in music and lyrics had certainly helped maintain audience’s attentiveness. However, not little did doze off in the middle of the show, or simply close their eyes to enjoy the beautiful sound alone at times.
The curious and appreciative ones, nevertheless, would go into constant pondering on what the whirling dervishes could have feel or experience throughout the whole ritual. Regardless of the seemingly boring, external routine, what could these performers experience within their inner selves? Was there something actually happening within each and every dancer, something that couldn’t be seen by the physical eyes of the audience?
All these questions have become my motives to learn and try performing sema in private. And, I was fortunate that Mawlana Shaykh Nazim, my spiritual teacher from the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi Order, has authorised the teaching of sema to any of his aspiring followers. The left heel acts as the pivot and the right foot pushes the body to rotate around the axis in counterclockwise direction. The hands are both, most of the times, stretched upwards, welcoming divine outpouring from heavens. However, another common practice is to position both hands like a teapot — the right hand upwards as the opening of the pot which receives heavenly streams of blessings, while the other extended to the side or downwards as the spout which shares the beautiful showering to its surrounding.
I believe that when one does the whirling in full concentration to God, he or she will certainly act like the teapot — the reservoir and channel of divine outpouring and love to every creature around them. In my own experience of doing the ritual privately, I’ve been subjected to immense downpour of light seen with both physical eyes closed. This occurred during the process up to right after it ended, when I fell to my knees sweating profusely in overwhelming joy on the magnitude of experience I encountered in my whirling. In fact, a few traditions said that some could even fall into a state of ecstasy or trance so deeply that they would be lifted off the ground without realizing it. It’s not some Criss Angel’s Mind Freak show. Trust me, it’s real!
Mevlana Rumi was told to first perform whirling due to his overwhelming happiness of hearing the rhythmic zikr — remembrance of God — made by the hammering of gold pieces in a local marketplace. It proclaimed La ilaha illallaah, there is no god but God, repetitively in melodious rhymes. Feeling extremely excited, he extended both his arms upwards and, in trance, started twirling in circle.
I’ve also been fortunate to get acquainted with a beautiful soul named Abdullah, who’s spent many years in the company of Mawlana Shaykh till he was finally sent off in search for his own Personal Legend. Once I saw him whirling freestyle in much joy, following the drum beats and melodious zikr of the congregation. His eyes were wide open, beaming in joy, and a huge smile decorated his content face. Everything felt so happy and burden free.
Following their path of whirling out of joy, I’ve once performed whirling simply due to excitement of hearing the beat of Rob Thomas’ This is How a Heart Breaks from his 2005 album, Something to Be — in concentration to God of course. A good 3:50 of whirling, not bad! But still, I can’t yet outdo those dervishes, whose purity of heart and concentration in the love of God is definitely beyond my current state. (Or, at least, that’s what I thought). I miss whirling again!
This piece has been written in participation to WordPress’ Weekly Writing Challenge: A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words.